On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

A disease not to be sneezed at

I FLEW into Shenzen yesterday, just as the second Malaysian case of A (H1N1) flu was confirmed in Penang. It was the first flight from Malaysia into Shenzen.

We arrived at Shenzen on AK80 at 10.40am but were not allowed to leave the aircraft. Three health officers wearing facial masks came aboard 30 minutes later.

They videotaped every one of the more than 100 passengers, some of whom were already wearing masks, and used an instrument to take our temperatures.

We were all cleared at about 11.25am, allowed to get off the plane and board a bus to the airport building. But when we got there, we were not allowed to leave the bus.

Ten officials made us queue up in three rows for another round of checks before we got to the immigration counters where masked officers were overheard talking about Malaysian cases. All in all, it took us two hours to come out of the airport.

For Malaysians, the H1N1 has finally hit home. But with global travel now becoming easier, faster and cheaper, it was only a matter of time.

While there is bound to be a certain degree of anxiety over the flu, now that we have our own cases – both students who had just returned from the US recently – it is unlikely to stop us from travelling overseas.

We are in an era of mass human migration and transportation, says a scientist. Never in history have diseases spread geographically with such speed.

Travel has become a necessity and the world is not going to come to standstill because of this flu.

Travellers undeterred

In any case, 13,000 died from common cold worldwide in 2007. That’s many, many more than the number of H1N1 fatalities.

Extensive coverage of the H1N1 outbreak might have dampened the mood and added to the woes of airline operators, but it has helped create greater awareness and knowledge than fear.

Education and prevention are vital to cope with this strain of flu, which has hit 37 nations.

Two other students who were on the same flight as the two confirmed H1N1 patients are currently under observation.

They were among the passengers who boarded the same flight from Newark, New Jersey, who had been advised to undergo medical checks. It is good that no one is taking any chances.

In addition to dealing with H1N1, our Health Ministry has also been put under more stress with the outbreak of leptospirosis, a bacterial disease, at the Juru detention camp for immigrants in Penang.

Following the death of a Myanmar detainee, 26 others have been admitted into two hospitals for treatment. They have been suspected of consuming water contaminated with the urine of an animal. There is reason to be concerned because it is a rare disease.

The lack of hygienic conditions in the over-crowded camp could be a possible cause for the outbreak, but it is worrying that Malaysia is facing the return of diseases eliminated decades ago.

Migrant workers are bringing in infectious diseases despite the medical checks supposedly carried out on them before they enter the country, never mind the illegal immigrants who would have no medical records for sure.

Foreign exposure

It would not be wrong to say that Malaysia is facing the emergence and re-emergence of diseases because of these foreigners.

For example, tuberculosis and leprosy have been detected among immigrants, especially in Sabah, although we successfully wiped out these diseases long ago.

Health authorities have no other choice but to incorporate prevention programmes resulting in additional financial and manpower strains.

It has been reported that in 2004, 2.8% of the nearly one million foreign workers examined nationwide were found to be unfit.

Half were found to be suffering from hepatitis, 12.3% from tuberculosis, 8.4% from sexually transmitted diseases and 1.3% from HIV.

In 2000, it was reported that the increase in the number of TB patients in Malaysia was due to an increase in the number of HIV/AIDS patients and immigrants, according to a paper presented at the Third National Conference On Infection and Infection Control.

I wonder what the latest figures will show and I certainly hope there is improvement.

Malaysians have never heard of Chikungunya, a mosquito-borne virus, until recently. The last outbreak of this disease, endemic among migrant workers, was seven years ago but it has made a comeback.

There is always a price for everything and as the world becomes smaller, a sneeze can always lead on to something bigger.